Even the staunchest of Flames fans will admit it’s hard to get excited about mid-season matchups with teams like the Blue Jackets, Panthers, Sabres or the Wild.
There will be no such slouches on the Flames slate this year with the almost-certain advent of an all-Canadian division that will provide endless intrigue and sexy storylines with all six opponents.
Although league officials insist such a dandy divisional realignment would be a one-year proposition forced by COVID-19’s border restrictions, it’s one Calgary hockey fans should cherish.
A quick look at how each team should resonate with Flames fans, listed in order of relevance:
Matthew Tkachuk single-handedly resurrected the beloved Battle of Alberta last season with a series of targeted blasts on Zack Kassian the Oilers winger didn’t take too kindly to.
Shortly after the rugged Oilers winger rag-dolled Tkachuk without response, the war of words helped kickstart more on-ice fireworks. From there, everyone got involved, culminating in a goalie fight between Cam Talbot and Mike Smith the locals are still talking about.
At six-foot-six, one can assume Jacob Markstrom would give Smith a better fight. Maybe we’ll see.
These two teams — and their fan bases — hate each other once again, which was what made it so great that they played twice more in the three weeks following Tkachuk’s re-ignition.
Now they could play upwards of eight, 10 or 12 times, which will stoke the fire and send TV ratings skyrocketing.
Even Calgarians who don’t love the extracurriculars have to appreciate seeing the sublime skill of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with increased regularity. Even Draisaitl got into the heat of it by admitting a post-shootout stick-toss celly by David Rittich had infuriated the Oilers and spurred them on to their only win in last year’s four-game series.
With both teams trying to prove they are indeed building contenders, the rivalry also gives fans a chance to continue debating the relative merits of the Milan Lucic/James Neal swap.
Up until the Flames got involved in provincial goalie fights, the Canucks had been the Flames’ biggest rival for almost two decades.
Playoff matchups will do that to a relationship (see 2015, 2004, 1994, 1989 and even 1984 and ’83).
The fact that the Flames’ recent west coast raid included stealing Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo and even former backup Louis Domingue via free agency should heighten the intrigue of a long-standing feud that includes seeing a line brawl to open a 2014 game two seconds in.
Now armed with highly entertaining young studs like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, who helped propel the left coasters to unlikely playoff success this summer, they also employ sandpaper types like Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland and Calgarian Jay Beagle, who can make the Canucks a miserable bunch to play against.
The stage is set for more emotional meetings.
Had they not met in the play-ins this summer, this matchup might have been the most benign of all the Flames’ Canadian matchups.
However, because a Tkachuk hit on Mark Scheifele knocked the Jets star out of the post-season early in the first bubble game, this one could get intense early.
Coach Paul Maurice went over the top with his inflammatory assertion that the hit was reckless and dirty, but his players didn’t go out of their way to target Tkachuk in what was a hard-hitting series between two big clubs.
Tkachuk fought captain Blake Wheeler shortly after the hit, and one wonders if there will be anyone interested in exacting any revenge in a regular season game when scores are more easily settled. He and Scheifele are pals who work out together in the off-season, so don’t expect those two to get into it.
Games against Vezina Trophy-winning Connor Hellebuyck will also act as a measuring stick for Markstrom, who many consider to be amongst elite NHL netminders.
When they last met, Cam Talbot outplayed Hellebuyck to clinch a four-game series win for the Flames.
Calgarians Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey also add to the local angle.
Few teams made more interesting moves over the off-season than the Habs, who have been amongst the biggest of draws in Calgary even before the two met in the 1986 and 1989 Cup finals.
Topping the list of high-profile acquisitions of late is Josh Anderson, who the Flames actively pursued the last few years. The hockey world will be watching to see if Anderson can stay healthy and do his part as a frontline player to earn the seven-year, $38.5-million deal he inked after being acquired from Columbus.
Tyler Toffoli is another Canadiens addition the Flames had interest in in the past.
Flames fans have watched with angst as Paul Byron emerged as a team leader after being plucked from the Flames via waivers in 2015. The one that got away.
Ditto for Brett Kulak, who has evolved into a top-four defenceman in Montreal after being discarded by the Flames via trade in 2018.
Carey Price is a top draw wherever he goes, as is the most storied franchise in NHL lore.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The most polarizing team in the land is always an intriguing visitor to the Dome, given its rich history and the legion of faithful Buds fans who have spent decades insisting that perhaps this is the year they defend their title from 1967.
Kyle Dubas has certainly assembled a formidable bunch of superstar forwards who sell jerseys and create interest everywhere they go, including Tkachuk’s pals Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
A handful of players on the Flames, like captain Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, all hail from the Toronto area and get jacked up every time they suit up against their childhood team.
Former Flames defenceman TJ Brodie used to be one of those who endeavoured to step up his game against the Leafs. He’ll now try to do the same against the team he spent a decade with.
Signed as a free agent to play alongside Morgan Rielly on the Leafs’ top pairing, Brodie will find himself in his least favourite spot — the spotlight — when these two clubs clash.
Even the worst, least interesting team in Canada provides an appealing connection with the Flames, via the brother vs. brother angle provided by the Tkachuks.
Older brother Matthew has already reached star status — and is paid accordingly — and there’s little doubt Brady is trending in the same direction.
Separated by 21 months and several inches (“Brady is a big boy now,” said Matthew of the six-foot-four, 212-pound 21-year-old), the lads have played four NHL games against one another, with Brady’s Senators winning for the first time last Christmas.
The youngster opened the scoring that night in front of 40 family members and friends, but not before the referee kicked out the two starting centremen so the siblings could open the game with a faceoff.
Mom has made the rugged duo promise they won’t fight one another, but given the competitiveness that has long dominated their relationship around their St. Louis home, many will tune in just to see how they interact.